Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a thing about books and their jackets. Without the right jacket, readers can be disappointed – promised something that wasn’t delivered through no fault of the author – and writers can be let down, not reaching as many readers as they should. This particular jacket, I’m pleased to say, fits its book like a glove. Addison Jones’ novel is the story of a marriage contracted in 1952: Jack is about to playfully pull the laughing Milly into what they hope will be the nice warm swimming pool of married life. Sixty years later, things may not look quite so sunny but they’re still together until one of them goes.
Jacko meets Billie when he’s twenty-four and she’s on the cusp of twenty-two. He’s the new copywriter at Perkins Petroleum Products, his eye already on more literary pursuits when he’s not running it over every attractive woman who comes within sight. She’s a typist, thinking about the kind of man she might marry and dismissing the newbie across the desk as too cocky by half. By the end of the Friday on which they meet, these two will have agreed to a drink together almost by chance rather than design. It’s the first step on the road to a long marriage – sometimes happy, often challenging. Jacko will become Jack, too nervous to put his new colleagues right when he finds himself offered a job at a San Francisco publishing house, and Billie will revert to Milly to save her youngest son Willy a life of constant embarrassment. They’ll weather infidelity, separation, the death of a child and the acceptance of a sibling’s children into their family until they reach the sheer hard graft of old age when one of them will be left behind.
Beginning with their first meeting in 1950, contrasted sharply with the day the couple are finally parted in 2014, Jones tells the story of Jack and Milly’s marriage backwards. From snapshots to longer episodes, each chapter reverses time by several years, neatly shifting perspective between husband and wife in an intricate reconstruction of their marriage. The narrative is a little fragmented in the way that memories are but it’s all beautifully done, anchored by recurring motifs: Milly’s grey honeymoon dress, Jack’s musings about his first love. This is no soft focus, romantic view of marriage. In many ways Billie and Jack are an ill-matched couple, neither of them quite what the other expected or thought they were, but they stick it out, always finding some love left no matter how close they are to the bottom of the barrel. Jones’ writing is perceptive and often very witty: ‘It had been such a long, bloody battle’, thinks Jack at the fiftieth anniversary party their children throw for them; he’s ‘a good man, with a bit of mid-life nonsense on his CV’ is Milly’s charitable summing up of Jack’s philandering. They’re a couple very much of their time: he forges ahead into the world, setting up as a successful small publisher funded by her inheritance, while she stays at home to look after the kids, always feeling a bit left behind in the competition that their marriage sometimes becomes. It’s an engrossing, utterly gripping novel, beautifully bookended by the repetition of Jack and Milly’s first meeting. It’s whetted my appetite for something similar set at a later date. Any suggestions?